With some excellent lateral transplants and a few managerial facelifts, Irwin Mitchell’s transformation to a full-service outfit has been entirely clinical and rarely negligent.
Sheffield-headquartered Irwin Mitchell has a formidable reputation in all things clinical negligence and personal injury, earning a raft of top nods from Chambers UK in both areas. It's also a leading force in Court of Protection work and family law, though it's not just people-oriented cases that keep this firm busy. "We're a much more commercial firm than we were five years ago," graduate recruitment partner Lisa Jordan notes, and indeed IM has brought in more than 30 partners to its business side since 2012, with the real estate and insolvency teams being just a few of the teams it's beefed up with such lateral hires. Both areas earn high Chambers UK rankings, as do its corporate, banking and finance, employment and IT factions.
This ten-office outfit underwent a significant ownership reform in 2012 when it converted to an Alternative Business Structure. You can read more about the ins and outs of what this entails by clicking on the 'bonus features' tab above, but know that the most significant consequence of an ABS conversion is that non-lawyers are able to have a stake in the firm. According to Jordan, the conversion has allowed IM to "streamline our operations and concentrate on efficiency, and that makes us much more of an attractive proposition going forward.” IM has certainly been efficient: since gaining ABS status, IM has acquired six small firms, the latest being London private wealth specialists Berkeley Law in late 2014. Such expansion has left a positive impression on IM's trainees. “The firm's desire to constantly adapt to the times is not only reassuring but exciting,” remarked one. “When ambition meets growth, there’s more room for opportunity.”
New joiners IM opt to pursue one of two 'streams' during their training contract: personal legal services (PLS) or business legal services (BLS). PLS encompasses practices like clinical negligence, personal injury and family law, whereas BLS has a far more corporate focus. There’s no option to dabble in both paths, though trainees revealed that “the occasional switch does happen. But it’s not a regular thing and certainly not something that the firm would advertise as an option.” At the moment, the Newcastle, Bristol, Southampton and Cambridge branches (the smallest ones) only offer the PLS stream; each of the others offers both. At the time of our calls, there were 18 trainees in Birmingham, 16 apiece in Sheffield and London, ten apiece in Leeds and Manchester, four in Bristol, and two in Newcastle. The Cambridge office and IM's Southampton branch were new additions in 2014; both are primarily PLS-focused. The former will welcome its first trainee in 2016, while the latter did so in September 2015.
The business end
If you’ve got an eye for an investment, the BLS route could well reap dividends, though know that BLS training contracts are in increasingly high demand: “When competing with other firms, we did struggle to attract a higher percentage of high-quality BLS candidates at the start, but that’s not the case anymore at either the trainee or NQ level,” Lisa Jordan reveals. Training contracts in this stream follow the standard format of four six-month-long seats.
The corporate department “firmly focuses on clients in the mid-market,” trainees said. “The firm has spotted a gap in the £1-25 million market, and so we pursue a lot of that work.” A fair number of IM's corporate lawyers are based in Sheffield or Leeds; these teams frequently unite on the various M&A, capital markets and private equity deals they handle – for example, Astral Poly Technik's recent £4.4 million acquisition of a stake in Seal It Services, which manufactures the 'Bond It' sealant range. "Sheffield in particular is pushing towards entrepreneurial seed investment clients," many of whom, like Astral Poly Technik, have links to India. Over in London, meanwhile, it's primarily private capital deals for mid-size funds like Brooks Equity. Along with drafting board minutes and Companies House forms, a corporate seat is likely to involve a lot of client contact: “Partners are keen to teach us business development skills early on."
Real estate is “definitely Irwin Mitchell's strongest BLS department,” trainees thought, telling us that the national uptick in the property market has seen things get “very busy” here in recent months. Sheffield and London have traditionally been the mansions amongst the terraces when it comes to pulling in work, though a Manchester source did note that “over here, things are shaping up since we onboarded a whole team from DLA Piper in January 2013.” Between the offices are some big-name clients, including HSBC, Thorntons and ITV. The firm handles quite a bit of real estate finance and investment work, and is known for its expertise in the retail sector in particular. In Sheffield, lawyers recently helped City Estates sell land to Sainsbury's for a new store, while their colleagues in Manchester advised 3 Sovereign Square on a development agreement for office and retail space it acquired from Leeds City Council. "We do a lot of networking between offices to make sure transactions go smoothly," a Mancunian interviewee said. They continued: "There are a lot of smallish files you can handle yourself – I got to oversee a £2 million disposal of a retail park. That involved A LOT of paperwork."
Since 2014 the Birmingham, Leeds, London, Manchester and Sheffield commercial litigation teams have all welcomed partners from the likes of DLA Piper and Eversheds. Each office has a slightly different focus: Birmingham covers “a lot of defamation claims,” for example, while Manchester “does a lot of panel work for banks.” Across all, “there tends to be a high volume of small cases mixed with a handful of larger, more complex ones.” Unsurprisingly, trainees “get greater responsibility on the smaller matters, like drafting letters of claim, compiling witness statements and putting forward proposals for claim values." We even heard of a trainee who'd bypassed the bundling to represent IM in the small claims court on their own.
Upfront and personal
Unlike their BLS buds, PLS trainees complete three four-month seats, then one twelve-month seat. "This format is great in that it lets you channel your focus on the type of law you want to practise, though if you’re unsure of what you want to do, then it can perhaps feel a little restrictive.” The same range of PLS seats are available across "basically all" offices, Lisa Jordan notes. "Cambridge and Southampton are still growing, but they cover everything to do with personal injury and are both set to run a family seat.” Given IM's prominence in the personal injury and clin neg fields, it's worth noting that most PLS seats cater to these areas. Trainees can sit in family law and contentious probate, but as one Londoner put it: “If you’re not at least somewhat interested in personal injury, this stream is not for you.”
London and Birmingham have carved out a niche for international personal injury and products liability work. This practice –“everyone just calls it ‘travel’” –focuses on medical claims that take place outside of the UK, with some lawyers covering illnesses, “such as food poisoning claims against hotels,” and others handling accidents. The firm recently represented two families of victims killed in the 2013 In Amenas hostage crisis, where terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda orchestrated an attack at a major Algerian gas plant. Following an inquest into the plant’s security, the firm engaged in a civil claim relating to BP’s on-site security. IM also had a hand advising on the fallout of the 2012 'Costa Concordia' disaster, though it’s worth bearing in mind that “much of what we cover focuses on a less extreme scale – think tour-bus crashes.” Still, "the work keeps you very busy. I worked on one inquest that had more than 200 files to go through."
The majority of clin neg cases are claimant-focused, often for recipients of misdiagnoses or injuries sustained during operations or birth. Cases often range into the multimillions: the Sheffield team recently secured £5 million in compensation for Ellie Sutton, who was left with severe brain damage, epilepsy and learning difficulties after being discharged from hospital whilst suffering from meningitis. "We frequently visit clients in their home if their condition is particularly severe," said a source in Sheffield. "It can be emotionally difficult at times; you need to be an empathetic person to do this job well." Trainees here also need to be fast learners, "as you're expected to get to grips with a lot of very complex medical theories and terminology from the start.” Fortunately, “the firm has a lot of partners who are expert in certain areas, so if you’re stuck on the technicalities of a cerebral palsy case, for example, there's someone to point you in the right direction.”
IM’s Court of Protection team manages the financial affairs of people who lack the capacity to do it themselves – "like if someone has received a high-value settlement for an acquired brain injury, we’ll help make sure the compensation meets all of their future needs.” Trainees here told us they're “involved in everything to do with the day-to-day running of clients’ financials," from drafting letters to court to calculating clients’ budgets to contacting financial advice providers to research investment opportunities. “Clients here are for life – we form strong relationships with them and meet regularly. It’s a great seat for client contact.” Like with clin neg, the nature of clients’ injuries calls for a bit of tact: “You can’t just rush in with a handshake, as some clients won’t be comfortable with that.”
Among IM's large trainee cohort is “a diverse range of backgrounds," our interviewees were keen to note. "We haven’t all been to redbrick unis, and we haven’t all achieved 2:1s. What’s most important is that you’re personable, irrespective of which stream you join. On the PLS side, you’re expected to communicate sympathetically and patiently with clients who are often severely handicapped or traumatised, and in BLS you need to be able to attract new clients to progress the firm's corporate ambitions.”
Beyond the odd “territorial Nigel” proudly protecting the PLS printer, “everyone mixes really well," trainees across the firm agreed. All the offices are open plan, "which really helps promote a friendly and supportive vibe. Among the partners are some great leaders who will sit you down and take the time to explain why they’ve made certain decisions. You really feel nurtured.” Less celebrated was the "outdated" firm-wide IT system, which “has a bit of catching up to do.”
Naturally, working hours vary between departments and offices, though most interviewees reported that 9am to 7pm constitutes an average day for them. "In London it's a bit longer, particularly on the BLS side. That's just the nature of the City." The hours may not be so bad, but remuneration was the subject of a few grumblings in the regional offices, where everybody starts on £25k (Londoners start on £36k). A few residents in Bristol felt particularly hard done-by "considering Bristol is so much more expensive than, say, Sheffield." That said, “it's definitely not enough of a big deal to leave over. At the end of the day, the partners put in an excellent effort to train us and make us better lawyers, and that makes it worth it.”
Interviewees across the firm say it has a lively social scene in which "there’s always someone up for drinks on Friday.” Each office has its own sports teams and Christmas party, and certain practices unite with their counterparts in other offices for the odd departmental away day. "The clin neg one is really good – there are interesting talks all day, followed by drinks in the evening." Trainees said one of the best ways to mix with other offices is to dip a toe in the firm’s “extensive” CSR scene, which includes plenty of events run by the firm's own charity, The Irwin Mitchell Charities Foundation. The organisation has raised over £1 million to date for local charities and bigger causes like Comic Relief and Children in Need.
IM usually excels on the retention front. “Grad recruitment is good about hinting upon future NQ openings when it comes time to switch seats.” In 2015, 29 of 36 second-years stayed on.
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How to get an Irwin Mitchell training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 15 January 2016
Training contract deadline: 24 July 2016
Application and video interview
Irwin Mitchell receives over 2,000 applications each year for its 50 or so training contracts up for grabs. Applications begin with a cover letter and some questions on “your reasons for choosing to apply to Irwin Mitchell, what you believe you could add to the firm, and your motivations for applying for a particular stream,” graduate recruitment officer Alex Burgess tells us. (Read our True Picture on the firm to learn more about these 'streams'.) There are also the usual competency-based questions, plus ones covering work experience and qualifications.
Around 500 applicants make it to a video interview (a link is sent to the candidate, inviting them to complete the interview at a convenient time within a set deadline). The interviews last between 15 -20 minutes and in Burgess' words, aim to discover a candidate's “determination to succeed, flexibility, adaptability, commercial awareness and client focus.” There are usually some IM-specific questions too, so be sure to brush up on your knowledge of the firm's practice areas and geographical coverage.
Roughly 200 people go through to the assessment centre, which involves a group exercise, an instruction-taking task and an interview, plus a tour of the office.
The group exercise varies each year, but IM always looks closely at “how candidates interact with each other and combine forces to achieve the desired goal.” For the instruction-taking task, candidates listen to a phone message from a potential client and prepare a brief in order to discuss the potential case with the assessors. This tests their ability to extract relevant information, prepare a summary and analyse it effectively.
Then there's the interview, which is carried out by a partner and an associate, or a member of the graduate recruitment team from the office the candidate is applying to. This involves a mix of questions covering the candidate's CV, their motivations, their knowledge of the firm and competencies like client focus and discipline.
IM recruits around 70% of its trainees through its two two-week vac schemes (aka 'legal work placements'). These take place in June and July and are offered in each of the firm's English offices.
There's no set number of places, but Burgess tells us around 80 students overall participated in 2014, and 72 took part in 2015. Vac schemers usually sample two different departments during their visit. According to our sources, the firm “tries to let candidates experience at least one area of interest.” Candidates are asked to provide their preferences before the start of the scheme.
At the end of the two weeks is an interview that covers questions about the candidate's “motivations and career aspirations, their reasons for wanting to work at Irwin Mitchell, and their awareness of what's happening in the legal world.”
How to wow
“As a firm, we take academics into consideration, and are looking for high achievers,” says Burgess. “However, academics is just one area, and we look for candidates who can display skills in a number of areas. As the team read every application, we want to give applicants the opportunity to sell those skills, whatever their background.”
IM is looking for “well-rounded individuals with a good amount of work experience behind them.” It's particularly important to demonstrate interpersonal skills too. As Burgess adds: “You'll be dealing with clients on a daily basis, so these skills are assessed throughout the process.”
The firm's conversion to an ABS
Every year when the Student Guide speaks to IM trainees, there's something new to report on. “They do seem to like changing things,” one trainee joked. “They want to be the first to react to new developments. We are expanding and want to be at the head of the pack.”
It started with splitting the firm into 'business' (BLS) and 'personal' (PLS) parts. Since then IM has welcomed several non-lawyer business management figures to its partnership (thus becoming a Legal Disciplinary Partnership or LDC); innovated with conditional fee arrangements; teamed up with the AA, the RAC, eSure, Marks & Spencer and the Daily Telegraph to provide legal services; and restructured its fast-track and multi-track PI practices. Much of this has happened to allow the firm to smoothly transition into being an Alternative Business Structure (ABS).
This business model was made possible by provisions within the Legal Services Act (LSA), which came into force in January 2012, allowing outsiders to invest in law firms. (The same provisions mean that non-lawyers – from the Co-op Bank to the AA – are also able to provide legal services. That's why the LSA is often referred to as 'Tesco law'.) IM was one of the first firms to announce its intentions to convert to ABS status, and in August 2012 it received approval for the change from the SRA.
The firm is not yet fully committed to inviting outside investment, but training partner and clin neg specialist Lisa Jordan does acknowledge it is “an option.” If investors do turn up at the door, they will want to know what they are investing in and whether it's profitable. “We're already a strong business financially,” says Jordan, “but we’re always looking at how we can continue to grow our business and improve our profits still further. That’s just good business practice and puts us in a strong position for the future. We’ve been structured along corporate lines since 2011 and that makes us different, reflecting the breadth and diversity of our groups and offering to clients.” Presumably, investors will also be able to put their money into either the BLS or PLS sides of the firm or take a flutter on the multi-track rather than the fast-track work. The possibilities are manifold.
Trainees were impressed with the firm's post-conversion path. One interviewee gladly reported that: “It has allowed us to bring in people with expertise in key areas, such as financial directors at board level. We're recruiting beyond just our partnership to make sure we have the best people for the job. Our marketing strategy has subsequently improved, and this has made the firm more stable.” With more transparency and outside scrutiny, the pressure is also on for IM to make sure everything is ship-shape all the time. (Don't forget that Halliwells' 2010 demise had its origin in a back-room deal between partners in which they agreed to pocket a multimillion-pound property-premium windfall.)
So how does all of this affect the trainee experience? Over the past few years our sources have noticed several changes, including the splitting of the training contract into business and personal streams, and “an increased focus on business development, which everyone gets involved with.” We also wondered whether the firm's heightened interest in profitability and the bottom line means trainees will have to work longer hours. “I don't think it will,” Jordan told us. “Our focus is on working more cleverly and more efficiently, not on working more hours. Everything we do will be focused on providing an even better service to our clients.”
Whatever the case, IM is certainly a legal innovator, and so far its strategy seems to be paying off, with revenue growing by a healthy 4% in 2014/15 to £210.6 million.
Other seats at Irwin Mitchell
Whether you're interested in the personal legal services (PLS) or business legal services (BLS) stream, Irwin Mitchell has a ton of seats for trainees to choose from. Here's a closer look at a few we didn't cover in the True Picture.
Trainees who'd completed IM's workplace injury/illness seat reported working on lots of asbestos cases, mainly involving people “who had been exposed to it in the 50s and 60s but have only recently been diagnosed with a related illness.” The team has a long-standing presence in this area, having advised on such matters for nearly 30 years, and it's also big in non-asbestos disease claims and general workplace injury matters. Cases here “have a very quick turnaround,” meaning it's important “to determine the size of a claim as swiftly as possible so the sufferer in question can actually make the most of the compensation they receive.” Typical trainee tasks that crop up in this seat include interviewing clients and preparing schedules of loss.
An employment seat is available on the BLS side. The team has plenty of big-name clients on its books, including FedEx, HSBC and everyone's favourite chocolatier, Thorntons. Following the recent establishment of IMe Law – the firm's ABS venture with insurance group esure – IM’s Yorkshire-based employment boffins have been busy drafting legal agreements, and advising both parties to ensure that all actions conform with TUPE – Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) – regulations.
The banking and finance department is “very busy right now,” according to a trainee who'd recently spent time there. The team handles huge matters for virtually all of the country's major financial institutions, including RBS, Santander, HSBC and Lloyds Bank. Lawyers recently helped the latter provide a group of Lancashire-based textiles manufacturers with an £8 million financing package to aid their national growth plans. Sources relayed that there's “a steep learning curve” here. Responsibilities included drafting ancillary documents like board minutes and dealing directly with bank representatives.
IM's insolvency group also represents most of the UK's biggest banks and advises three of the 'Big Four' auditors: KPMG, Deloitte and PwC. Lawyers here have been helping corporate recovery heavyweight Leonard Curtis pursue the former directors of a property investment outfit for breaching Fiduciary and other duties. Before going into liquidation, the insolvent company had transferred a significant amount of money to a sister shop in Dubai, adding cross-border considerations to this £7 million case. Trainees got involved in “a mix of debt recovery, corporate insolvency and personal insolvency work,” covering both contentious and non-contentious matters. Typical trainee fare included preparing documents for deal agreements, making applications to court, advising directors on their actions and drafting letters of claim.
Trainees in the contentious trusts and probate team found the seat “emotionally challenging, but all the more rewarding when you achieve a successful outcome for an individual.” The department takes on all sorts of will and trust estate disputes for individuals, as well as banks, executors, trustees and beneficiaries. Many cases are settled before trial proceedings begin, usually via mediation.
A stint in the family law group can be highly charged too, with one trainee confessing that “the real challenge is giving sensible legal advice, while taking into account the emotional sensibilities of your client. If their best option is to settle, it can be a hard sell, particularly if they're convinced that they want to carry on with proceedings.” The department serves high net worth individuals embroiled in financial disputes, which often involve private equity investments and large property portfolios. On the divorce side, the firm regularly advises clients on prenuptial agreements, custodial cases and protection of assets.
- Partners 205
- Other fee earners 1,400+
- Total trainees 76
- Contact Nicola Stanley, graduate manager, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Method of application Please visit the firm’s website www.irwinmitchell.com/ graduates and complete the online application
- Selection procedure Application, video interview and assessment centre
- Closing date for 2018 24 July 2016
- Training contracts p.a. 50
- Applications p.a .2,500
- % interviewed p.a. 20%
- Required degree grade 2:1 degree or higher preferred
- Training salary
- Outside London
- 1st year £25,000
- 2nd year £27,000
- 1st year £36,000
- 2nd year £38,000
- Reviewed annually in July
- Holiday entitlement 24.5 days
- % of trainees offered job on qualification 80%+
- Offices Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Southampton
Main areas of work
Business Legal Services: The firm offers a wide range of commercial services. In recent years, it has signifi cantly expanded its corporate, commercial litigation and real estate services and aims to become a leading provider of business legal services. Areas of expertise include banking and finance, commercial litigation and dispute resolution, construction and infrastructure projects, corporate and commercial, employment, environmental, insolvency, international, investigations and prosecutions, pensions, planning, real estate, recoveries, restructuring and tax.
Sponsorship & awards